How the Biden presidency became a wreck

There is a famous quote widely attributed to 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire that urges us to always look on the bright side: “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” However, with the Biden administration on Thursday passing its one-year mark in power, there is little cause for such good cheer. The Biden White House — despite real legislative accomplishments such as passage of the COVID-19 economic relief package and the bipartisan infrastructure bill — resembles nothing so much as a political shipwreck.

A year into his term, the RealClearPolitics poll of polls finds the president’s approval rating underwater, with a 42 percent job approval, as opposed to 52 percent who disapprove of Biden’s performance. The standard political rule of thumb in Washington is that if a president’s approval rating stands above a lofty 60 percent, he can simply tell Congress what to do, so great is his popularity. On the other hand, a subterranean rating below 40 percent finds the occupant of the White House trying to squelch rumors that he is dead, so inconsequential has his administration become. Viewed in this Washington insider context, the Biden White House finds itself on life support.

What explains Biden’s dramatic fall from political grace? Beyond the specifics of politics and policy, the president has failed in a more elemental way. At his inauguration, after all the storm and tumult of the Trump years, the new president promised to restore competence, steadiness, decency and a boring, bipartisan normality to governing and to a country exhausted by four years of riding the Donald Trump roller coaster. He has signally failed to achieve this.

Instead, despite a 50-50 tie in the Senate and the slenderest of majorities in the House, Biden — long known as a moderate — tacked to the progressive left, unveiling a series of domestic initiatives as ambitious in their efforts to expand the role of the state as anything since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s. The difference, following the Democratic landslide in 1964, is that Johnson had overwhelming majorities to work with in both houses of Congress.

Perhaps the fatal flaw in Biden’s time in office so far is the disconnect between his highly ambitious (and highly ideological) domestic policy ambitions and the meager reality of his governing majority. With Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia effectively derailing the crown jewel of the Biden agenda — the mammoth Build Back Better progressive wish list bill — the White House has looked alarmingly leftist and legislatively maladroit. For a man elected to restore bipartisan competence and normality, this has been a political killer. With Build Back Better languishing in the Senate, the rest of Biden’s domestic agenda looks to be derailed for the next year, leading up to what looks to be a midterm shellacking in both houses of Congress.

Beyond these failures of policy, tone and ideology, the Biden team has besmirched its initial reputation for competence. The administration’s alarmist vaccine mandate — an odd and highly restrictive policy choice given that the omicron variant of COVID-19 seems to infect the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike — was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The rise from seemingly nowhere of the beast of endemic inflation — the December inflation rate reached an almost 40-year high of 7 percent year on year — was badly missed and then downplayed by the White House. This has emerged in recent polling as the country’s primary concern, a problem almost entirely of Biden’s own making, which alone (if unchecked) has the power to sink his presidency.

Finally, even in international affairs — supposedly the president’s strength, given that he was long the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — the Biden administration has looked inept. While a majority of Americans were eager for the US to exit the endless war in Afghanistan, the panicky and amateurish manner in which the withdrawal was handled, as suicide bombers struck within Kabul airport itself, sickened all of America’s friends in the world, just as the debacle emboldened all of its foes.

For all the talk by the president that “America is back,” the grim reality finds Russia probing US weaknesses in Europe, with the transatlantic alliance still very much not on the same page regarding Moscow, the danger emanating from Iran or the rise of China as a peer superpower competitor. Once European allies got over the euphoria of no longer having to deal with Trump, relief quickly turned to concern as the Western ordering power of the world — mirroring the president’s increasing personal shakiness — seems unsteady, weak and flailing.

Ironically, the expected midterm drubbing in November — where the House seems certain to fall to the Republicans and with the Senate also very much in play — is probably the best political card Biden has left to play. This is because the rise of the GOP will undoubtedly tempt Trump back into the political fray. The most recent late December Reuters/Ipsos poll found Trump the favorite of a massive 54 percent of Republicans to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2024, with only Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (at 14 percent) also managing double-digit support. A rematch with America’s most polarizing figure in 2024 is Biden’s best chance for improbable salvation.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Biden’s misreading of his narrow mandate may be his biggest mistake

Part of the reason for my fascination with the classical Greek world is the beguiling notion that, if it can be understood, life itself can be understood. That is why I began my last book, “To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk,” looking at the story of the Pythia of Delphi, seeing the priestesses of Apollo as the first practitioners of the ancient and noble art of political risk analysis.

Carved deep in the dank cave where the Pythia made her predictions is an inscription that amounts to the Greek world’s ultimate contribution to philosophical thought: The Socratic admonition to “know thyself.” Just back from a week of grueling high-level meetings in Washington, where I met leading members of both parties for a series of candid discussions, I can say in all honesty that — if Socrates is the intellectual bar by which we are going to measure the world’s greatest power — it is failing, and doing so badly.

This is because both parties’ analytical observations stop with themselves. Obsessed with the all-too-real problems crippling their rivals, they seem unable and unwilling to come to grips with their own equally obvious political handicaps — problems that will surely consume one or both parties over the next three fateful years. However, the time frame of their political peril is different. For the Democrats, the problems are now; for the GOP, they are more in the medium term.

In terms of the 2022 midterms, the Republicans have always had history on their side. The party holding the presidency has lost House seats in 36 out of 39 midterm elections since the Civil War.

Beyond this historical record of “buyer’s remorse,” Republicans are in charge of the lion’s share of the statehouses and governorships that control the 10-year process of census redistricting of House seats, a new cycle that will be put into place in 2022. It is estimated it will give the GOP an extra 10 to 15-seat advantage going into the midterm campaign. As the Democrats presently only control the lower chamber by four seats, it was always likely that the GOP would regain control of the House in 2022.

What was not preordained was the possibility of a Republican landslide in the midterms. However, following on from Republican Glenn Youngkin’s surprise victory in the 2021 governor’s race in Democratic-leaning Virginia (a state Joe Biden won by a decisive 13 points over Donald Trump just a year ago), all the signs point to a significant Republican victory in the midterms, with the Democratic loss of the House seeming a foregone conclusion. The 50-50 Senate, meanwhile, seems to remain in play, even though 20 of the 34 seats up for election in the upper chamber are currently Republican-held.

What has gone so wrong for the Democrats? Gleeful Republicans forensically shared with me the symptoms of the Democratic Party’s disease. First, the Biden administration is not getting credit for its historically significant legislative achievements, while the ugly sausage-making manner of the law-enactment process seems to be counting as a mark against it. People have already factored in the popular $1.1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and his earlier $1 trillion-plus COVID-19 emergency bill. The Democrats’ negotiations with themselves have made for a publicly unedifying scene, as in this time of COVID-19 — a worldwide historical emergency — the Democrats have seemed petty and small, navel-gazing about themselves at the expense of the country.

At the same time, voters increasingly (correctly in my view) think the party has been worrying about every issue under the sun except inflation, the one issue that matters. A mid-October Fox News poll found that 53 percent of voters said they were extremely concerned about inflation; no other issue topped 50 percent.

With inflation soaring to 6.2 percent in the US last month and with the Democrats pouring fuel on an already raging fire, given their gigantic spending bills, an increasing majority of voters fault the ruling party for having loosed the beast of inflation, quelled now for 40 years by Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan. The Biden administration seems to have forgotten the basic political rule that, while unemployment is terrible for the minority of voters afflicted, high rates of inflation affect literally everyone, serving as a form of taxation on the living standards of the working poor and lower middle class. This has obvious and drastic political consequences.

Lastly, rather than repairing the breach in American political life, following on from the chaos and hyperpolitical partisanship of the Trump years, to many voters Biden has instead served as an empty vessel for the excesses of the out-of-control progressive left of the Democratic Party. The Biden White House seems to have forgotten it won the Democratic nomination in 2020 precisely because Biden was not a leftist, unlike Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Rather than wanting the new Biden team to embark on the most ambitious, leftist-leaning domestic agenda since Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs of the 1960s, voters wanted a moderate, decent Biden to inaugurate a period of peace and quiet. Biden’s misreading of his narrow mandate to instead enact gigantic social spending bills may be his greatest mistake of all.

This blog post was originally published in Arab News.